Tag Archives: diversity in fiction

Superheroes R Us

So also in the realm of superheroes, the comics side of Marvel has been watching the collapse of its sales model, while dealing with a cross-over disaster that had a far right leaning writer making Captain America, the Steve Rogers version, into a Nazi/Hydra spy as part of a muddled multiverse idea. The collapse has not been a new thing; it’s been a process going on since the 1980’s that happened to then coincide with the great shrinkage of the wholesale market for magazines, newspapers, paperbacks and comics that took place in the 1990’s and helped pop the collectors’ hyper-valuation bubble in comics issues. Essentially, the big comics companies tried to increase monthly buys by staging big crossover stories that required buying from four to seven series at a time to follow, while comic prices went up, up, up. These crossover stories often made use of multiple universes to shake series up, allowing them to totally reboot characters and past stories with little regard for consistency.

This was certainly one of the reasons that my husband and I stopped really buying comics way back – it was too expensive to do and our child needed food. But the success of graphic novels, including bound omnibuses of monthly comic issues, and the emergence of highly successful live action superhero movies and animated t.v. series and movies from major comics helped keep especially Marvel afloat for a while. Now, though, retail markets are further squeezed and Marvel has made things worse with poorly planned stunt events, constant reboots and number one reissues to try to generate short term sales instead of reliable regular fans. Economic uncertainty in the face of controversial political events has further dampened sales recently.

When Marvel Comics held a retailer summit in late March with the comic stores, one of Marvel’s vice presidents of sales – a white guy – apparently brought up that some comics vendors were saying the diverse comics – the ones not about white guys and white guy led teams – weren’t selling and that maybe this was the reason for Marvel Comics’ poor comics sales showing the previous quarter. This was flagrantly untrue. Many of the “diversity” comics are Marvel’s top sellers and had clearly brought in more readers domestically and globally. And many of their white guy comics had sales in the toilet and were being axed. The race and gender of the leads in the comics neither guaranteed sales nor that sales would tank.

So why would a senior vice president of Marvel, with full access to the real sales figures, float a lie that was so easily disproven about his own company? And which he had to apologize for and take back not long after? Did some comics store vendors actually say this to him? Very probably. But the comics store owners also have access to sales numbers well beyond their own stores. So why would some of them push such an assertion?

Part of it was clearly deflection. Rather than admit that the problem was an unworkable production, pricing and marketing model, or admit that your store has adapted poorly to pushing your products under current market conditions, it’s an easier fix to blame the audience of the medium for being unreasonably bigoted, which then becomes the big talking point.

But as a form of deflection, it’s a poor one. The vice president’s trashing of his own company’s line was a PR nightmare for them. Presumably this same vice president respects and works with POC and white women artists, writers and editors at Marvel. Why would he then disparage what they do, and which helps pay his salary? Especially when he had said last year that women and kids as readers were a key component of Marvel Comics’ success?

In a word, reassurance. Marvel and the comics industry in general has been run by white guys, like most industries, particularly in the marketing and business end of things of course, but also on the creative front. While others were occasionally welcomed in, mostly they were blocked and certainly kept from obtaining leadership positions of influence if they were around. This has created a comfortable cushion of established and protected practice at companies like Marvel.

That’s changing a little bit. As they recognize the need for greater variety to hold on to and expand a global market, Marvel, like other comics companies, has been putting out more titles that offer a slightly wider range of characters and ideas. With that comes a slight increase in the variety of people who work there and create the titles. This allows Marvel in the long term to grow and expand its workforce and its product line – something that can benefit white guys too.

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Filed under book publishing, SFFH, Social Equality, Women

The Problems We’re Still Fighting in the Industry

Australian writer Foz Meadows is rapidly becoming a favorite columnist of mine. She’s sharp, erudite and a good researcher. Over at Black Gate Magazine’s site, Meadows gives a meditative take on the resistance to diversity in the SFF field that involves all of us, conscious and unconscious, and how the industry responds and contributes to these issues in the article “Challenging the Classics: Questioning the Arbitrary Browsing Mechanism.” And she even references me! Specifically the piece I did in July on publishers needing to prove they really do want women authors to get women authors and why, “Reality and the Welcome Sign: Gender and SFFH,” in response to an announcement from Tor UK’s editor, Julie Crisp, on diversity and SF.

But that’s not really what impressed me about the article, nice as it is. Browsing is one of the three main interactive factors of the fiction market, along with symbiosis and variety. How readers browse is therefore deeply critical to what fiction publishers do, and I hope that a lot of them and booksellers especially will consider Meadows’ piece. If we improve diversity in browsing, and in marketing and publishing fiction, we improve and increase the market, the effectiveness of browsing. I also think it’s great that Black Gate editor John O’Neil has not only taken a long critical look at his own thinking, but continues to promote the discussion of these issues, including publishing Meadows’ piece. (Plus, have you checked out the fiction at Black Gate? — it’s really good.)

The depressing side of the article is that Meadows documents the many obstacles put in the path of that improvement, and often in our own brains. These artificial obstacles hurt SFFH, they hurt YA, and they greatly limit the appeal of fiction books, by a combination of discouraging readers away from books that they are trying to sell, and making it impossible for many readers to find the interesting and diverse books that have managed to get out there.

Books survive on a combination of the appeal of our romantic notions of them as objects and entertainment/insight providers, and getting as many people as possible to ever read any of them, any kind of book, in any format. Self-reinforcing and false feedback loops that discourage reading and limit it, sink the book market.  Essentially, when booksellers insist that stories with non-white protagonists get whitewashed covers, for example, and publishers go along with that idea, they are committing sales suicide, not only for the book in question, but more importantly for the books to come. When the industry and fans promote the idea of women written books being only for women and always of poorer quality, for instance, they are sinking the market, losing huge chunks of growth. Throwing up your hands and wondering where the readers have gone when you’ve been telling them to leave and that there’s nothing for them here is creating a death spiral. While fiction stories will always survive, we could be surviving so much better, if not for absurd scripts in our heads that are put out in the market. (And it is in our heads — booksellers have no stats that the damaging marketing techniques are needed, only fears.)

It is in this area that self-publishing may be beginning to play an interesting and vital role. E-books sales are leveling off as they took up what they are going to of the mass market paperback market, and as tablet enthusiasts and electronics companies lose interest in books in favor of apps and video. And a lot of the folk who dove into the self-publishing pool have gone back out again after not selling many copies. But those who continue to experiment in that market include many authors who have found the going harder to get folk interested in trying their stuff — stories about women, non-whites, non-Western cultures, gay characters that come out in the other sectors of fiction publishing too, but which may be marketed badly. What we know is, when stories and authors who have been marginalized — and declared by many not to exist — see a real opening in the marketplace that they can get to, they’re right there. And the response is often new sales, new readers, and market growth for the whole industry.

So check out Meadows’ piece and some of the excellent articles she links to (no, not mine, the other ones,) especially this one on racism and YA book covers, “It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers” by YA librarian Annie Schutte.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under book publishing, SFFH, Women